Policing attracts some men who want “to exert and coerce” vulnerable people, the new national police lead on violence against women has admitted, as she urged officers to create a “call-out culture” to tackle sexist and misogynistic behaviour.
Deputy chief constable Maggie Blyth, who took up the post of national lead for violence against women and girls (VAWG) at the National Police Chiefs’ Council five months ago, said it was wrong to dismiss abusive, violent or sexist officers as a “few bad apples”.
She added that policing scandals of the past 12 months, including the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, had been a “stark check”.
“That was so shocking to policing that it rocked the whole of the service in a way that we really hadn’t seen since the murder of Stephen Lawrence,” said Blyth in an interview with the Guardian to mark International Women’s Day on Tuesday. “It felt, and continues to feel, like a watershed moment.”
Asked whether recent scandals such as revelations of deeply sexist and racist WhatsApp messages from officers demonstrated that the police were institutionally misogynistic, Blyth said policing reflected the “misogyny and sexism problem” found in society.
But she added that policing, like other jobs with access to power, could attract people who wanted to “use their power in a corrupt and criminal way”.
“There will be some attracted into working in policing, because of the powers that it offers them, the powers to exert and coerce other people, particularly vulnerable individuals. I think we shouldn’t be naive to that,” she said.
While proper vetting of officers was vital, it could only provide a “spotlight for a moment” on a potential recruit’s conduct, she said. Fellow officers had to be “upstanders, not bystanders” and feel supported and obliged to take action if they witnessed unacceptable behaviour.
Blyth acknowledged that scandals including the jailing of two Met officers for taking pictures of the dead bodies of two sisters had a “significant” impact on women’s trust and confidence in the police.
“As much as we are going after dangerous men in society and prioritising VAWG, we are going after dangerous men in policing,” she said.
But she insisted that an increasingly vocal and confident majority of officers wanted to change discriminatory cultures – adding that 42% of new recruits were now women, a record level, while 11.8% were from minority ethnic backgrounds.
“I see a workforce really angry and upset at the misogynist, racist, disrespectful behaviours of some of their colleagues and I see officers really wanting to demonstrate how different they are,” she said.
But Blyth is aware that she is not the first police leader to promise that lessons have been learned, and police culture is changing. She expects more scandals to emerge, adding that the public perception of policing of violence against women is likely to get worse before it gets better as whistleblowers expose digital evidence of misconduct.
“It isn’t helpful to say that these are isolated cases, we now know and we can see that they’re not,” she said. “My view is we have to be very clear that we are going to see more of these cases come to light.”
Real tangible progress was being made, she insisted, pointing to Operation Soteria – a pilot study to be introduced in 14 forces which focuses on a more aggressive pursuit of sexual predators rather than on the credibility of victims – and the recent announcement that VAWG will be given the same importance as counter-terrorism and serious organised crime as a strategic policing requirement.
But Blyth stressed that despite a change in narrative and focus, policing alone could not change the way that women and girls were treated, and called for societal change, including more education of boys and for more men to speak out against everyday sexism.
“I have optimism,” she said, “I wouldn’t do the job if I didn’t. But we need to really grasp this moment to make those changes, not let anyone off the hook, and not to move on to the next thing. Women’s lives mean more than that.”